Working as a sex therapist, I have more than a passing interest in what the culture happens to be serving up about eros.
Part of it is simply curiosity about what my clients are reading. But the greater part involves a search for conceptual tools with which to understand the erotic mind.
Fact is, sexuality remains a mystery in many ways.
Are humans inherently monogamous, or not?
To what extent are men’s and women’s sexual natures the same or different?
What’s the connection between sexuality and spirituality?
What do women want?
These questions forever haunt us.
Last year, I endeavored to review a new book, written not by sex experts but by computer scientists, that nonetheless purported to offer insights about human sexual nature based on such things as Google porn searches and word choice in online erotic fiction.
The idea was and is a compelling one: If you want to understand human sexuality, look at people’s actual choices. On the internet, those choices are measurable.
By year’s end, my review of A Billion Wicked Thoughts had stretched to eleven articles, with no end in sight. Wary of tiring my readers, I put a stop to it.
But now with Fifty Shades of Grey it seems we’re back in the territory of mass erotic choice.
Can we learn anything about sexuality from the success of FiftyShades? Yes, I think so.
Since the book is erotic fantasy rather than actual sex, though, we have to be careful. We shouldn’t, for example, after reading the book presume any knowledge about the actual world of BDSM practitioners.
But when just about every woman in America is reading, has read, is about to read, or has made a conscious decision not to read this book — well, that makes it significant. Even if it’s just fantasy. Sexual fantasy is where the erotic mind lives.
So what can Fifty Shades tell us about the female erotic mind in the early 21st Century? And can it tell us anything about human sexual nature (if there is such a thing) in general?
In “Some Aspects of Women’s (Hetero)Sexual Desire,” I discussed how A Billion Wicked Thoughts analyzed romance novels, by far the most profitable form of fiction in the world, for clues about what turns women on.
When the article was reprinted on PsychologyToday, it drew the following response from “Anonymous” —
“It’s a proven scientific fact,” wrote Anonymous, “that women base their decisions largely on what the majority chooses. Women are social creatures.”
As the father of an 11 year old girl, I’d agree. Looking through the teen fan magazines she leaves on the couch, and surveying the posters on her bedroom wall, I’m impressed by how much pre-teen romantic choice seems to be a team sport.
Maybe Fifty Shades is so popular for the same reason Justin Bieber is popular — simply because he’s popular. And popularity, for many women, is a legitimate cue for attraction.
According to my daughter, in her school lunchroom there was for a brief time a Justin Bieber table — at which the subjects under discussion only marginally involved Justin Bieber. His celebrity seemed mostly to serve as a social organizer for the 6th grade girls in their interactions with each other.
My fellow Manhattan sex expert Logan Levkoff said pretty much the same thing about Fifty Shades in an interview on the Today Show — Maybe just talking about the book with other women has inherent erotic value.
This kind of thing has been around, obviously, for a long time — at least since the Beatles. I remember my highschool girlfriend describing how she and her sisters had all decided to like the Beatles — and how they made her like George, because her older sister already liked Paul.
The fact that erotic choice can act as a social organizer makes the study of human sexuality quite tricky. As Chris Ryan reminded us about human sexual prehistory in Sex at Dawn,human erotic life has forever been a social affair.
But can we sift through the emergent properties of social sexual choice to something more fundamental on the individual level? Good question.
Maybe we can begin by asking, as we did in discussing Richardson’s 1740 novel Pamela,whether there are common ingredients to be found in our own culture’s favorite erotic delicacies.
I suggest we start with Twilight — and with its close cousin, Fifty Shades of Grey.